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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

April 1958


Mr. Kennan and Reappraisal in Europe

Philosopher and our leading political analyst, Walter Lippman has had from the first serious reservations about the containment policy as it was applied by Secretary of State Dean Acheson and then by Secretary Dulles. In this paper Mr. Lippmann examines the thesis which was put forth by George Kennan in his Reith Lectures over BBC, an argument which has had a far-reaching effect throughout Western Europe and particularly in West Germany.

by Walter Lippman

George Kennan has told us that when he was writing the Reith Lectures during the summer of 1957, he was "happily ignorant" of the "attention they would attract." This is, surely, a simple statement of fact. For nobody, I think, could have foreseen that throughout the world they would precipitate a public debate which has so many of the characteristics of an historic event.

Return to Flashback: Cold War, Part II?

Yet now that the debate has begun, we can, I think, see why it began when it did. Mr. Kennan delivered his lectures in the interval between the launching of the Sputnik in October and the Special meeting of the NATO powers in Paris on December 16. During that time, there had occurred in the world, and particularly in Germany and Western Europe, a profound reappraisal of the balance of military power.

The basic assumption of the post-war policies of the Western allies has been that the United States is the paramount power in the world, and that in the long run, the views of the Western allies on Germany and Eastern Europe are bound to prevail. As a result of the disclosures about the Soviet's technological capabilities, which the Sputnik symbolized, this basic assumption has been destroyed. In the reappraisal which is now under way, it is widely agreed that for an indefinite number of years to come, the United States and its allies in NATO will be hard put to it to restore and to maintain an equal balance of power.

It was at the beginning of this reappraisal that Mr. Kennan spoke out. He spoke gently and quietly, as it is in his nature to do. But because nobody in authority, not Mr. Dulles, not Dr. Adenauer, not Mr. Macmillan, had anything at all to say on the political implications of the great disclosures about the balance of power, Mr. Kennan's words have resounded and reverberated throughout the world.

But while this explains why his lectures attracted so much attention when they did, there is still the question of why they have attracted so much support. My own view is that the Western allies had come to a dead end on the road which they had been following in the post-war years. The road which Mr. Kennan pointed out is the only alternative which has some promise of leading to the reunification of Germany and to the national independence of the East European states.

These are, I know, large words. I can explain them best if we look back to the origin of the controversy which Mr. Kennan's lectures have brought to a head. For Mr. Kennan's central thesis has a long history. I think I can speak with some personal knowledge when I say that the fundamental issue--which is withdrawal from Germany versus occupation--was already being debated in high Allied quarters by the summer of 1943; that is to say, a good eighteen months before the end of World War II.

At that time the German armies were still in Russia, around Leningrad and Smolensk, and the Red Army had just reoccupied Kiev. The Western Allies were not yet on the European continent except in Italy south of Cassino. Yet Churchill and Roosevelt had become confident of a victory over Germany, and it had become plain to them that they would need an overall plan of how the Soviet Army coming from the East and the Allies coming from the West should deal with a defeated Germany.

This led them to decide, at the Moscow Conference in November, 1943, to establish a European Advisory Commission with instructions to study post-war political problems and to make recommendations. This commission set to work in London early in 1944, and brought forth agreed recommendations on the terms of surrender, on the allotment to the four powers of zones of occupation, and on machinery for the joint control of occupied Germany.

But before the commission was set up, during the summer and early autumn of 1943, there was private discussion among the Allied planners and policy makers on a critical point of principle. Reflecting this discussion, I wrote a newspaper column on October 5, 1943, saying that we must think about "whether, and if yes, then for how long a time and in what way, the Allies mean to occupy and govern Germany with their armies. Disarmament, the pursuit of war criminals, the liquidation of the Nazi Party and of German economic imperialism, reparations--will have to be enforced. *The question is whether it is desirable and necessary to enforce our terms by occupying and governing Germany.*"

The Allies decided, of course, to occupy and govern Germany, and in the heat of war it may be that this was the unavoidable decision. But in the light of what has happened since--namely that the prolonged occupation of Germany has led to the division of Germany and of Central Europe--it is interesting to note that even as early as 1943 there were responsible and informed men who would have preferred to take a different course.

I do not know whether the official archives contain documentary evidence of this. But I was, at the time, a practicing newspaperman who often had the privilege of talking privately with some of the planners, and what I am quoting was written at the time: "it is evident...that to occupy and govern as big a nation as Germany is a most formidable undertaking, and to carry it out for a long period of years by the united action of our complicated alliance would call for a degree of unanimity which we have no right to count upon."

The alternative to a prolonged occupation, which was suggested by the dissenters, was to have the Allied armies enter Germany "for the purpose of disarming her, of arresting the criminals, of recovering the loot, and of making visible the reality of her defeat, and then to retire outside the frontiers, except perhaps to hold the strategic gateways and certain strategic economic resources such as the Ruhr and Silesia."

The main argument advanced for this alternative was that it would make the German people themselves, rather than the puppet governments of the Allied occupation, responsible for the solution of the German problem. There was the greatest doubt as to whether the Soviet Union would ever make a German settlement if the Red Army established itself in Germany. It is interesting to read today that fifteen years ago--when the war against Germany had still to be won, before there was a Cold War with the Soviet Union--it was possible to see that if Europe got used to a prolonged Allied occupation, "as soon as the occupying powers leave, all of Europe will tremble at what may happen, and the whole artificial settlement will be in turmoil ten or fifteen years hence." Fifteen years have now passed, and Mr. Kennan's suggestion that the occupation must somehow, sometime, be brought to an end is causing many Europeans and Americans to tremble.

This shows, I submit, that Mr. Kennan's central thesis is not a newfangled theory, the pipe dream of a mystic, the imagining of an unworldly scholar, or worse still, the design of an appeaser of communism. Mr. Kennan's central idea points to the other road which the Allies might have chosen at the defeat of Germany, had they not been in the grip of a war psychosis and, we may add, had they been lucid and realistic about Stalin.

For while it is not certain, indeed it is not probable, that the Red Army would quickly have withdrawn from the Eastern Zone, the Western allies would have entered the Cold War, which was unavoidable, in much the stronger political position. The United States, with its monopoly of the atom bomb and its unsurpassed industrial establishments was at the zenith of its military power. The Western allies would have had a diplomatic position in which they stood for the essence of a true peace, which is that the defeated country is not to be partitioned and that its territory is not for long to be occupied by foreign armies.

As it is, having opted for an indefinite military occupation, we have confirmed and consolidated all the things that we complain about: the Iron Curtain, the partition of Germany, and the satellite empire which lies behind the lines of the Red armies of occupation. The overriding fact about the post-war world is that Europe remains divided along the line of demarcation where the invading armies halted and became armies of occupation. While these foreign armies remain where they are, there can be no reunification of Germany. Nor can the captive nations of Eastern Europe recover their freedom while they are surrounded by the Red Army with its outposts in Eastern Germany and its lines of communication running through Eastern Europe.

It is, therefore, facing both ways to advocate the reunification of Germany and, at the same time, to oppose the evacuation of German territory. Moreover, as Hungary demonstrated so vividly and so painfully, it is a cruel deception to talk of the liberation of the captive peoples unless there is a serious prospect of the withdrawal of the Red Army from the territory of these captive peoples.

The European policy of the Western allies was laid down by President Truman and Secretary Acheson. It has been continued and confirmed by President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles. It is based on what, from the point of view of power politics, is a sheer paradox. The policy attempts to combine advocacy of unification and liberation with a stern opposition to military evacuation. The cook has promised to make an omelet but he has sworn not to break any eggs.

The defenders of the existing policy consider themselves great realists who have put aside all wishful thinking. On what calculation, then, in the power relationships of great states, do they lease their expectation that Russia will withdraw from Europe while the United States and Great Britain remain, and are allowed to advance their military frontiers at least to the borders of Poland?

Because this is such an extraordinarily naive notion of what can be asked of and gotten from the Soviet Union, there is a widespread belief in Europe that all the official talk about liberation and unification is insincere. Undoubtedly there is much insincerity in it. In Bonn, in London, in Paris, and in Washington there have long been leading persons who, when they are speaking privately, say quite frankly that they prefer a divided and occupied Germany to a reunited and unoccupied Germany. They are afraid that a united and unoccupied Germany will dominate Europe. They are afraid that a united and unoccupied Germany will make a deal with the Soviet Union. They are afraid that if there is no occupation there will be civil war in Germany. I have at many times heard these fears argued earnestly, but privately, in each of the Western capitals.

Yet I do not think that the Western policy on liberation and unification is entirely insincere. Once upon a time, at least, it was quite sincere. It rested originally on an estimate of the Soviet position, on what was once, as he has recently reminded us, the estimate of Mr. Kennan himself. The Soviet Union, it was thought, was headed for great internal trouble and would, therefore, be a declining power in the world.

I can remember an interview I had in 1953 with the head of a Western government, who told me that there was reason to believe, based on the most reliable intelligence, that the Soviet Union would be in a major economic crisis by the year 1957. Mr. Dulles is on public record as believing as recently as February 24, 1956, that such a crisis was actually under way.

The existing official Western policy on unification and liberation today is intelligible only if we recognize the premise on which it is based. That premise is that the Western power is paramount and that the Soviet power is certain to decline. On this premise, but only on this premise, can one arrive at the official policy which expects Russia to withdraw while the Western powers advance; which expects; in short, that the relative power of the two alliances is such that in Europe the Soviet Union will be compelled to make an unconditional surrender.

We are living in a time when the underlying premise of our post-war policy has been shown to be false. There can be no such thing as an accurate quantitative measure of the balance of power. But whatever the actual balance may be, it is certain beyond all doubt that the Western allies are not now superior and all-compelling. There is, moreover, no prospect whatever that the time is coming when they will be able to compel the Soviet Union to accept their official terms of settlement. This is the situation from which truly realistic thinking must start. The situation calls for a reappraisal of the official terms of settlement, and the attention which Mr. Kennan's lectures have attracted may be said to mark the beginning of that reappraisal.

Mr. Kennan has made it plain that the last thing he meant to do in his lectures was to recommend his "reflections to governments as a finished program for action. What I have tried to suggest here is not what governments should do, but what they should think about." This, I believe, he has accomplished. He has set in motion a reappraisal of the post-war situation which has grown out of the original decision, made during World War II, to occupy and govern a defeated Germany. The great public, especially in Germany, which he has attracted is aware that the Acheson-Dulles-Adenauer policy is at a dead end, and that it has become necessary for the Western allies to reorient themselves from a policy based on a military occupation to a policy directed toward military disengagement.

As Mr. Kennan disclaims having proposed a finished program for the governments to act upon, it is not necessary to agree with everything he said if one agrees with his central thesis. I myself, for example, agree with Sir John Slessor's criticism that the "weakest point" in Mr. Kennan's lectures was where he proposed that a reunited and neutral Germany should remain disarmed not only in nuclear weapons but even in the conventional weapons, except those appropriate to a kind of militia equipped to wage guerrilla war. There are, it seems to me, other highly debatable obiter dicta in the lectures--as, for example, his advice to continental Western Europe to renounce all nuclear weapons, and his assertion that rich nations, like the United States, need not feel any responsibility for the underdeveloped nations.

These dicta are, however, beside the main point, and whether they are true or false, wise or unwise, has nothing to do with the central question. It is whether the right road is toward disengagement of the foreign armies or toward the solidification of the existing military division of the European continent. As compared with the central issue of occupation versus disengagement, to make much of the other dicta is, as the saying goes, to pick fleas out of the mane of a lion.

What matters, what calls for thorough examination and debate, is that Mr. Kennan has defined an issue which the world must face now that the post-war era is ending and the post-Sputnik era has begun.

As an old believer in Mr. Kennan's side of the argument, I have often been asked several questions. The first is what our program of action would be if disengagement became the principle of our policy. The second is whether the West can be defended if Germany is neutral and the foreign troops leave. The third question is whether the Russians can be expected to agree to any program of disengagement which protects the vital interests of the West.

On the first question, I have come to believe that it is too soon to adopt a program of action. Before that can be done wisely and well the re-orientation of our thinking must go much further. It must reach the point where it is the accepted and common view of the preponderant mass of the Western people. A sound program will require the collaboration of the very best minds in the Western world. That will not be possible unless they have become convinced of the principle.

For it is of critical importance that the German parties should not be so fiercely divided as they now are on the principle of a united, neutral, and unoccupied Germany. If the principle is to work well, it is an absolute necessity that German neutrality should--like Swedish neutrality, for example--rest on the united will of the people. In a European settlement, the Germans must not have any reason to feel that they have been abandoned by their friends or that they have been imposed upon by their conquerors.

The Germans are not now united in their convictions about their own future, and it will take time before they can be expected to agree among themselves. There is no rush about the actual settlement, which in any event would almost certainly have to be phased over a period of years. What is needed for the moral and mental health of the world is that there should be clear signs that among the Germans and the Western powers the process of reappraisal, reorientation, and re-education is gaining momentum.

The second question is whether Western Europe and North America can be defended if the foreign armies are withdrawn from a united Germany with the Red Army going behind the Russian frontier of 1945, the British and American armies withdrawing from continental Europe. For my part, I assume in this that a reunited and neutral Germany will be an armed power, as Sweden is, and that the Strategic Air bases in England, in Spain, and in North Africa will remain where they are--pending a more general global settlement.

For the answer to this question, I am relying upon the judgment of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, who, as was demonstrated during the war and after, is a military strategist of the first order.

In a series of articles appearing recently in the New York Herald Tribune, Slessor argues that the defense of Europe in this age of long-range nuclear weapons does not require the stationing of non-European troops on the Continent nor the establishment of nuclear weapons in Central Europe. In fact, he believes that the withdrawal of Anglo-American-Soviet forces from the Continent (and of Germany from the NATO alliance), far from being an unacceptable act of appeasement, might well be considered by Russia as a concession "which actually leaves the West no less militarily effective than it is now."

He goes on to say:

"It would be foolish to pretend there are no risks about this--of course there are serious risks; this whole situation is a balance of risks. But let us look at it in the round. Would the danger from 500 Russian submarines be any more menacing if there were not still a few British and American divisions in Germany? Does any one really imagine that twenty-eight NATO divisions with atomic weapons could stop an invasion by the 150 Russian divisions armed with the same weapons? Can any one believe that in that almost inconceivable event the nuclear holocaust could be avoided, whether Allied divisions are on German soil or not?

"That perhaps is a bit over-simplified. But the point surely is this: the political advantages of this broad belt of uncommitted states between East and West, once firmly established, would surely outweigh some admitted political disadvantages....

"I'd have thought on balance the political advantages would be overwhelming--including the obvious one that to separate in this way the military frontiers of East and West would reduce the chances of an accidental stumble into a war that nobody wants. That means that the military dangers involved in the process of establishing this new political pattern in Europe (which must take some years) must be serious indeed to outweigh its political advantages once it is established."

Sir John Slessor's conclusion is, of course, debatable and it is strongly opposed by the leading strategists of NATO. But on the military issues he speaks, I believe, with expertness and authority fully equal to theirs. His conclusion is that on balance the probable advantages of disengagement outweigh the military risks.

This brings us to the third question, which is whether the Soviet Union will agree to an acceptable settlement which has such political advantages for the West. The answer must be, it seems to me, that our primary task is to work out a policy which reflects the true condition of the balance of power. It must recognize, in short, that *we are dealing with an equal power, not an inferior one*, and that a settlement must therefore be based on bargaining.

Such a settlement must be designed not only to protect our own vital interests. It must respect the vital interests of Russia.

We do not have to prove to ourselves now that the Soviet Union will be moderate and reasonable in the negotiations. All that we have to do, and all that we can do, is to work out a program of settlement which a Russian government could find acceptable if that government were moderate and reasonable, if it were protecting its vital interests but not seeking aggressively to dominate Europe.

All this will not be easy to do. But if such a program is ever arrived at, it will be based, I believe, on the principle of disengagement.


Copyright © 1958 by Walter Lippmann. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
The Atlantic Monthly; April, 1958; "Mr. Kennan and Reappraisal in Europe"; Volume 201, No. 4; pages 33-37.

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